Defending a vegetarian diet

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A few weeks ago, while visiting extended family on the east coast, my husband and I pretended we weren’t hungry so an elderly relative wouldn’t go to any trouble preparing something for us. I love her, she’s so sweet, but we were in the rural South, and she’s definitely a Southern cook. I’ve politely pushed boiled green beans around my plate after being told, “Oh, you vegetarians can eat those—there was only a ham hock in there for flavor, but I took it out.” I’ve dodged iceberg lettuce salads with ranch dressing and bacon bits. I’ve pronounced plain baked potatoes to be “delicious,” and eaten a LOT of bread.

But she was more adamant than usual on this visit. “Lord, I don’t know what to feed you kids,” she said over our protestations that we’d had a big breakfast and would pick something up later. “Can you eat peanut butter sandwiches? Is that a meal? What DO you eat?”

And I went blank. Completely blank. I couldn’t think of a single thing that I did eat. And oh, I felt ridiculous—there I was, an editor of Vegetarian Times who’s been veg for years, who absolutely loves cooking for myself and guests, and I suddenly felt like a freak with the strangest diet in the universe, one where I could eat nothing. Even after wracking my brain, the only things that came to mind would require some explaining—and sound weird to someone (especially a very religious someone) who had never heard of seitan. I think I weakly offered up “spaghetti?” and changed the subject.

Seitan piccata. Spicy tofu-broccoli pasta. No-huevos rancheros with tofu and black beans. Penne arrabbiata with baked eggplant and garlic bread. Ratatouille shepherd’s pie. Baby bok choy sautéed with garlic, sesame oil, baked tofu, and edamame. Roasted red pepper and tomato soup. Sloppy joes made with lentils. Sweet-and-sour tofu and veggies over brown rice. Veggie burgers piled high with toppings. Roasted portobellos and fingerling potatoes tossed with sautéed spinach, garlic, and balsamic vinegar.

Yeah, nothing indeed.

Do you ever go blank when you feel like you’re defending your vegetarianism or veganism? I usually think I’m a pretty good veg ambassador, proud to talk about—and especially cook and share—the delicious food I eat and why I eat this way, but I was at a loss. Maybe I should bring the above list with me next time!

—Lisa Barley, associate editor/web editor